This is the sort of story that really gets my back up – it’s a story about the state looking to catch benefit claimants out and making sure to utilise every one of the petty ways open to it to do this. Why aren’t bailed-out bankers hauled out for the sort of probing described below?
A few days ago, I spoke again to this young woman. She is 22 years old and has a four-year-old daughter. She’s been trying to sort out her Universal Credit claim for ages.
She told me about an argument she’d had at a London jobcentre she’d recently signed on with. It’s the sort of story I hear a lot – it’s about a jobcentre adviser and a benefits claimant arguing the toss over a small expenditure that appeared on a bank statement. This story may not sound like a big deal to some, but it is. I think that this nit-picky reading of bank statements by officials is one reason why people don’t apply for state help to which they may well be entitled.
At one of this young woman’s jobcentre meetings, a jobcentre adviser who was reading through the young woman’s bank statements happened upon a small payment to a fast food establishment. This immediately turned into a drama – doubtless heard by many the jobcentre, given the total lack of privacy in these places. The adviser demanded to know how and why the young woman was spending money on burgers and blah blah blah.
The young woman told me that a friend gave her some of the money afterwards to pay for the food, but that they had used her card at the time, because the friend didn’t have the cash with her to pay then and there. It was the sort of on-the-spot arrangement that takes place between friends around the world about a million times an hour, etc. Or should I say – it was the sort of on-the-spot arrangement that some people are permitted to make and others are not. Those who earn their “own” money are allowed to make those sorts of agreements with friends. People who receive benefits are not. They must make sure that they are in a position to justify every penny and know that they will be dealt to if they can’t, or if some official somewhere doesn’t like their explanation, etc. A bank statement does not, of course, offer any sort of back story. It simply lists financial transactions. The jobcentre adviser in this case assumed, of course, that the young woman was lying when she said somebody else paid towards the food. The subtext was and always is, of course, that the young woman was a) wildly irresponsible financially, b) a pisstaking benefits claimant and c) flush with cash.
I’ve seen this sort of thing a number of times, across several benefit processes. You see it a lot when people get so-called “debt advice” as part of a benefits or supporting payment process and must describe their outgoings. I usually think Oh For God’s sake. A couple of burgers. A TV licence. Who cares. The whole scene is unbelievably petty and grubby. The amounts of money are small and the items neither here nor there. Why shouldn’t people have a few small things to get through life from time to time. Bailed-out bankers do. To say the least. Of course – none of these Why Are You Spending Money On Burgers/A Telly/Cigarettes/Whatever conversations are ever really about money. Nor are they about helping people find work, or to earn more money, or whatever it is this part of the system is supposed to do. These conversations are about something else. They’re about punitive state departments backing people into a wall because they can. They’re about a wretched abuse of power. They’re about bureaucracies which feel utterly enabled by widespread political contempt for certain groups of people (those groups of people being benefit claimants and immigrants if you’re wondering). Bureaucracies can accuse, quibble and query, and so they do. They always have done, of course, but they’re really going for it these days. Contempt for benefit claimants allows that. We’ve reached a point in history where even an occasional expenditure by a benefit claimant on a small pleasure like a hamburger is practically considered a hanging offence. As I said at the start, it’s just a pity that political worthies don’t take the same view of members of a banking sector who’ve spent the last near-decade cruising about on public bailouts.
Any sense of proportion or humanity that might have existed in this system has gone. You see that everywhere – in the details people must give when claiming benefits, in the long-winded forms they must complete, in the endless assessments they must attend and in the utterly dysfunctional process that is thought acceptable for people who need to claim benefits or assistance of some kind. There are officials lined up all over the place who can pick through and question every penny of your income and outgoings if you’re receiving a benefit. Same generally goes if you’re applying to your council for, say, rent help with a discretionary housing payment. I’ve worked through that often-torturous and detailed application process with a number of people. Councils want to know it all. Here’s an example – Birmingham council wanting to know about your spending on TV rental, Sky or Cable TV, internet, entertainment (whatever that is), and travel costs and all the rest.
You’re expected to grovel at all times, of course. If you don’t, you’ll be told off by anyone who thinks that they’re entitled to a view on the way that you spend your money. Which is just about everyone these days. If you’re claiming state help in any form, you’re glared at for having a telly, a pet, a cigarette, a drink, or even a reasonable change of clothes. The world has very strong views on the sort of appearance and behaviour that constitute poverty (witness the homeless bloke in this interview who said that people sometimes said they doubted he had financial problems because his clothes were okay).
Certainly, the world likes to think that people who claim benefits are suffering. Increasingly, the world wants to inflict further suffering. Any suggestion that someone who claims a benefit might have enjoyed a treat is pounced on. No matter that the whole point of state assistance is (or was) to keep everybody above a certain line, rather than below one. And as I say – and I’m going to keep saying this – it’s a pity that members of the bailed-out banking sector who continue to profit and enjoy aren’t regularly hauled out in public for the same sort of deeply personal probing. One rule for all, etc. I’d pay a raised tax to see that.
And then there are the bank statements. I personally view this officious combing of bank statements as the digital equivalent of rummaging through trash for evidence of unapproved income, expenditure and enjoyment. As income and spending move online and a cashless society looms, the scene gets uglier. The equation is unfair in the extreme. So what if somebody buys a hamburger? Nobody knows the back story and anyway, buying a hamburger hardly busts an economy. So what if someone’s auntie slings a few quid into a bank account to help a woman and her kids through a difficult time? Ironically enough, the first thing that jobcentre advisers say to someone who is sanctioned, or who is in hardship for whatever reason is “ask your friends and family if you can borrow some money.” I’ve sat at jobcentre meetings where advisers have said that. Any extra money people are given can appear in a bank account. I fail to see how telling someone off for a small purchase out of that improves their chances of finding a job or earning more either, but, as I say, that sort of thing is not the point of these exercises. The point is to make sure that people who get assistance know that a punitive state owns every part of their lives.